We tried for almost a full two years to get pregnant before we found out Audrey was on the way. Since we conceived at a time when science said we shouldn’t have been able to conceive, we were never 100% on her timing. Her estimated due date was January 7, 2019, but she measured ahead of that almost from the beginning, and we took that with a grain of salt. Just like her sister, she was a wizard and she would arrive precisely when she meant to.
We had a full 36 hours of false labor toward the end of December, on the day of a supermoon and the eve of a super ice storm. I spent the day dancing around my kitchen, baking and breathing, until my body told me it was time to get serious, and I settled into a cycle of yoga and napping in the dark, with the cats on high alert. I fully expected to be coaxing the Subaru down icy, winding backroads to get to our beloved birth cottage that day. But babies don’t care about expectations, and my otherwise regular, measurable, timeable contractions fizzled at about 6 minutes apart as the sun set.
Suffice it to say, I was fully unmanageable by the time our “due” date rolled around. And then it passed. And then a week passed.
My midwives did everything they could to get labor going. We did everything we could to get labor going. Audrey stayed right where she was.
I am lucky that I had such incredible support from midwives at the birth cottage. I didn’t feel at all pressured to produce this baby, and I was having strong and continuous but inconsistent contractions, so we were ready to wait it out.
If you are friends with me on Facebook, you know how restless I was at this point. We had been waiting for this baby not only for the almost 10 months of my pregnancy, but for almost two full years before that. Making me wait past my due date seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.
But I loved my chosen birthplace and the community of women who were going to help me bring Aud into the world. I loved how they embraced Ella and all of her curiosity and exuberance. I loved how they trusted my body and respected my dignity as a thinking human. And honestly, I loved the ritual of our hour-plus drive through the winter woods to the little house where we thought Audrey would be born.
I prayed, and I yoga-ed, and I reaffirmed my tenuous trust in my body, and I did my level best to walk this baby out, circling the neighborhood in hiking boots I couldn’t tie because of swollen feet, with Ella in tow, the two of us skating on untreated sidewalks hand in hand.
Audrey stayed put. I stayed awake, every contraction a wake up call. I was absolutely exhausted, but I told myself that my body was doing what it needed to do, slowly inching Audrey towards birth.
But at my ten-days-past-due appointment, my midwives tried to sweep my membranes to get things moving, and we discovered that all those contractions had really just been busy work. Audrey hadn’t moved. No dilation, no effacement. We tried a couple of times, but we couldn’t even do a full sweep with my body as closed as it was.
Alison, the midwife I’d felt closest to the whole time I’d been visiting the cottage, suggested we wait 24 hours and see if the partial sweep got anything moving. And then we’d try the magic labor potion.
The magic labor potion was a recipe given to Alison by a French midwife. It included a low dose of castor oil, some herbal tinctures, apricot juice, and almond butter. The idea was that if you drank it, you’d have contractions two hours later. If the contractions fizzled after two hours, you were out of luck and could try again the next day. If the contractions continued after two hours, you were in labor. Abracadabra, magic labor potion.
So, 24 hours after my membrane sweep, I chatted with the midwives, and we decided to try the potion the next morning. If it worked, we’d have a baby. If it didn’t, I’d head to the closest hospital for a scheduled “post-dates” ultrasound, which is basically an ultrasound to check in on the health of the baby and the placenta. I already knew we would be dealing with some scrutiny, since, although the birth cottage regularly sent clients to this hospital for ultrasounds, the hospital itself had a preference for medical induction before 41 weeks.
The next morning, I woke up early and mixed up my potion. I drank the whole thing at 7am. At 9am, I checked in with the midwife on call, who was, naturally, the only midwife at the cottage I didn’t already have a personal relationship with, and I let her know I had no contractions. She suggested we keep our ultrasound appointment and try to get some rest, and then try the potion again the following morning. The plan was for the ultrasound tech to send the report directly to the midwife, who would then call us to talk through any next steps.
My mom came to pick Ella up mid morning. I wasn’t emotional about it because I wasn’t in labor, and I figured she’d be home at the end of the day. I took a grouchy nap while Jon worked.
The first contraction hit me about five minutes before we planned to get in the car to head to our ultrasound. This was about three hours later than I should have started contractions if the labor potion had been effective, so we weren’t sure what was happening. I called our midwife, and we all agreed it was a good idea to go to the ultrasound as planned, since even if I was in labor, we still had plenty of time, and if I wasn’t, we needed to know how Audrey was holding up during her extended stay in solitary confinement.
We got to the hospital for the ultrasound about 10 minutes late, only 25 minutes after that first contraction. By this point, I was having a hard time talking through contractions, but we still weren’t sure if I was in labor or if the potion would wear off and everything would fizzle. We made our way up to the radiology waiting room, where I promptly had a contraction so strong that I had to hold onto the wall and, if we’re going to put this delicately, “vocalize loudly.”
Friends. I was screaming, like a preggo lady in a dumb movie.
Naturally, and perhaps understandably, this put the radiology staff on guard. I am as suspicious of the mainstream health care industrial complex as anyone, but I try to keep in mind that I wandered into this hospital with no current record of prenatal care, approximately two weeks more pregnant than they believe is safe for me and the baby (which is not based on science but whatever), and apparently in active, messy, LOUD labor. The poor ultrasound tech student who drew the short straw that day would be forgiven for reconsidering her career choices.
I dutifully got myself up on the ultrasound table, but laying on a board on your back while a human head attempts to force its way through your genitals is obviously not ideal, so the stress level of the medical types in the room went up to 11 with every contraction.
The ultrasound showed no issues at all with baby or placenta, so then we just needed to wait while the hospital faxed our report to the birth cottage, where the midwife on duty would read it and call the radiology team to clear me for discharge. At this point, our plan was basically to check out of the hospital and speed about a kajillion miles an hour over the river and through the woods to the birth cottage, because although the baby looked pretty chill where she was, I felt like we were hurtling towards delivery at warp speed a la the Millennium Falcon.
But the thing is, we couldn’t get a hold of our midwife. The hospital faxed the report, they called the on call number, they called the back up number. Nothing. For 30 minutes, I paced the ultrasound room, breathing and groaning. And then finally we decided we were done.
We told the staff we were done waiting and wanted to labor at home. They were, perhaps understandably, nervous about letting us go, without having heard from our midwives. They very politely asked that we check in upstairs at labor and delivery so that someone with expertise in babies and birth could clear us for take off.
It seemed like a reasonable request, so we went upstairs. And we never left. And the rest of this story is still really hard for me to share, because I’m still not sure it was medically necessary, and because despite the fact that I feel like there were some larger forces at work, and despite the fact that I am still angry about some of the treatment I received, I will likely go back to the same team that delivered Aud for any additional children we are blessed to have.
A rather bewildered nurse checked us in and asked for medical records we couldn’t provide. We gave her the same phone numbers for the birth cottage that we’d given the radiology team, and then we were ushered into a room for monitoring.
A very kind delivery nurse came in and strapped a monitor to my belly with a big Velcro belt. I watched my body shift with each contraction – and in between contractions, Audrey would kick so hard the belt would be jarred off my belly.
In came the doctor on call. She stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips and said, “why are you here?”
We explained, again, the situation. We were just here for someone with medical expertise to monitor us for a few and determine that me and the baby were all right so we could be discharged to drive up to New Hampshire and get the show on the road.
This was met with some incredulity, but she finally shook her head and left.
While we were waiting, our midwife called. There was a malfunction with the pager system, and she’d gotten all of the hospital’s calls at once. She said everything looked good from her end, and she was comfortable with us either laboring at home or heading up to her right away. We said we’d be on the road shortly, as soon as someone came back to get rid of my monitor, etc.
But the person who came back was the doctor. We told her we wanted to leave, and that the midwife would be calling them momentarily to confirm her recommendation.
Honestly I thought they’d be relieved to get rid of us, with our weirdo birth plan and our lack of medical records and all of that.
Instead, she informed me that she disagreed with the midwife, that things were not going ok, and that if I left the hospital I would need to sign a paper indicating that I left against medical advice. She said that the monitor indicated the baby was stressed, and that if it were her she’d stay because she didn’t want the baby to die. “But hey, it’s your baby,” she said. And then she walked out.
So, “against medical advice” is a tricky thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean much, and it’s a nice way to make someone doubt their choices. The implication was that if I stayed, my baby would be fine, and if I left, I didn’t care that my baby could (somehow? Still not clear on what she thought might happen…) die.
If you want to play “industrial birth complex BINGO,” the “against medical advice” is the first space you can put a chip down on.
I panicked. We stayed.
We called the midwife and told her we were staying put.
The doctor came back in. We told her we agreed to stay. “Ok,” she said, as though we were still somehow arguing with her. “You wanted a midwife. Just so you know, you’re not getting that here.”
We said we understood that. She offered me an epidural, which I declined. “Are you sure?” she asked. “That’s a big baby.”
“That’s a big baby” is another chip on your BINGO card! Looking at the outside of a baby bump without actually examining anything is a wildly inaccurate way to guesstimate the baby’s actual size, and women with significantly larger babies than Audrey have healthy vaginal births every day.
I said I was sure, and that my last birth was unmedicated, so I knew what to expect.
“Suit yourself,” she said, and, to my great joy, left.
They got me in a delivery room, and a very supportive nurse settled in to spend my labor with us. Less than an hour later I started shaking and vomiting. They checked, and I was at 8 centimeters.
Another hour later and I was pushing. And pushing. And pushing. Audrey was at sort of an angle, so we moved me around a lot to try to get her sorted out. She’d get closer, and then move farther away. We started to hear things like “failure to progress” – hey, another one for your BINGO card!
The doctor came back in – she had blessedly been absent for a lot of this labor – and said, in a very reasonable tone, that she was going to give us a little more time, but that baby was “getting stressed.” If her words had been transcribed, there would absolutely have been a large ellipses after them…
That’s a two-fer! Assuming authority over a birthing woman AND setting a timer in one go!!You win! You’ve won Industrial birth Complex BINGO!! Give the reader a prize! Bonus points for the vague warning about baby’s stress level with no evidence in evidence.
But here’s the thing: from the second I had that first big contraction in radiology, a c-section felt essentially inevitable. I seemed like a risk to this hospital and to the team who happened to be on call. I’ve made it my business to learn about the waterfall effect of interventions in hospitals, and I had this creeping feeling the whole time that’s that’s where we were headed.
I’m not an aggressive person. I don’t like conflict, although I don’t usually shy away from it. Fighting a doctor whose opinion was set from the moment she saw me WHILE TRYING TO BIRTH A HUMAN felt a little extra futile.
So the next time the doctor came in, before she could open her mouth, I made the choice my own. “If you’re going to give me a c-section, just do it already,” I told her. “I’m not going to argue with you.”
The room exploded into action. Jon was whisked away to prepare. I was shaved (with no warning, I might add) and brought into the operating room. I had wave after wave of contractions, at 10cm dilated, while sitting on a steel table waiting for the anesthesiologist to arrive. At this point, it was decided, so I just wanted to stop feeling anything. During one particularly horrible stretch, I hung onto the shoulders of this doctor I actively hated and cried while she told me it would be over soon. Those last four or so minutes were almost as bad as the four or so hours I had pushed without any real progress.
Finally, someone stuck a needle in my back and everything went pleasantly numb. I was fairly out of it at this point, but I remember they were already getting started before someone thought to bring Jon back in. He was there when they brought Audrey out, and we laughed that maybe her giant ears were why she got stuck.
She was bigger than Ella had been, but not by much, and since I’d been pumped full of saline at the hospital a lot of it was water weight. She didn’t have much hair, but she had a good set of lungs, and she snuggled right up when they let me half-hold her on the operating table.
Then they took her and Jon out of the room so I could be stitched and cleaned up.
The doctor decided that was a good time for chit chat, from behind the curtain, where my body was still cut open:
Her: castor oil? Why would you use THAT?!
Me: …I was trying to avoid a medical induction.
Her: yeah but why put yourself through that?!
Me: …because I didn’t want to be in a hospital, because of the high incidence of c-sections.
Her: what do you do?
Me: I’m a writer, I freelance and I do some performing.
Her: ohhhhh so you’re one of those hippy-dippy types.
Me: I’m not sure what you mean by that.
Her: you know, all artsy-fartsy.
Me: I actually make money doing this sometimes.
Her, talking over me: I just don’t get that kind of stuff.
Her: so WHERE were you supposed to be giving birth?
Me: at the Birth Cottage in NH.
Her, laughing: I’ve never heard of that.
Me: they refer here all the time.
Her: well I’ve never heard of them.
Me: one of their midwives used to work here.
Her: I just think people who have babies at places like that are crazy.
Me: well. I wanted to avoid a c-section.
Her, talking over me: It just seems insane to have a baby without any doctors.
Me: …you guys actually have midwives here? They’re on call on the opposite weekends as you?
Her: I mean it just seems insane.
Me: I DON’T BELIEVE DOCTORS ARE NECESSARY FOR NORMAL BIRTH.
What I probably should have said was, “Could you please finish stitching me up before you disrespect all of my educated choices?”
But seriously, my guts were literally out in the open while this was happening. I’m not sure there’s a way to feel more vulnerable than to have your uterus literally open to the air while someone mocks your choices and tries to make your values seem less-than.
So again, I didn’t argue. I let her stitch me up. Eventually they rolled me into a recovery room, where I waited almost an hour for my baby to be brought to me, because we were forgotten in a shift change. It was our grouchy doctor who noticed Jon and Audrey sitting in a corner and read everyone the riot act about keeping the baby separate from me.
That is one of the stranger things about this entire experience. This doctor who was massively antagonistic throughout my birth experience was incredibly protective of me once it was done.
We had amazing care after birth. I overheard this doctor advocating for me to be released a day early, as I’d requested, because she said I was tough and could handle it. This woman praised me to her nursing staff for giving up the pain meds early so that I could feel ok about nursing and be cleared for driving to my frequent follow up appointments. “This one’s a tough cookie,” she said.
In private, she held my hand and told me she hoped I knew I’d done a great job.
It’s been a year. Audrey is amazing, and healthy, and an absolute joy. I am constantly grateful for her existence, and it sometimes feels self-indulgent and selfish to continue to be conflicted about how she came into the world.
I still struggle to understand this woman who delivered Audrey, and I still struggle with the treatment I received before I became a known quantity. I still grieve the birth I didn’t have, the one I’d hoped and planned for, with the midwives I loved who treated me with respect and dignity, in a cottage that felt as close to home as possible, just an hour’s drive up winding backroads through beautiful winter woods.
The reality is that I am very likely to end up back at the same hospital, with the same doctor, if I am lucky enough to have more babies. I developed post-delivery preeclampsia, so maternal-fetal health will need to be involved next time, and I’m cleared for a VBAC but only in a hospital setting. I’m part of the system now, and even a year later I can’t fathom the idea of laboring for hours only to end up with surgery anyway. I’d rather the choice be mine, the process be one I can at least vaguely control. The hospital had very good meatloaf with unlimited portions.
Maybe I’ll change my mind about this later. Maybe I’ll decide to fight back, or rebel, or at least look for a happy medium. All of Audrey’s existence is a reminder that I’m not in charge of much, and that the only constant is change. If I do end up trying for a different experience next time, I will definitely be engaging a doula – I didn’t think we needed one because I am pretty hands off in labor and we were planning to deliver in such a supportive environment, but having a doula as a birth advocate is the only thing I think might have made a difference in how all of this went, other than building a time machine to go back and choose the drive to New Hampshire instead of following “doctor’s orders.”
But today, on her birthday, when I can’t help but remember her birth as one of the most stressful days of my life, I’m just going to thank god for Audrey’s precious life. We’ve had a hell of a year together, almost as though we’re making up for all the heartache that came before. Time is a great healer, but Audrey is a greater one.
She had the stomach bug all day today. I held her all afternoon while she was sick, and I rocked her longer than I needed to before I put her down for bed. I can’t imagine our family without her, this baby we almost didn’t get to have. There’s a lot of healing still to be done, but we’re doing it together. And in the end, that’s all I really wanted.